Q&A with Brad Sawatzke

CEO, Energy Northwest

Brad Sawatzke

Number of employees you oversee: 1,000+

Brief background of your business:

Energy Northwest is a joint operating agency of Washington state, comprised of 27 public power member utilities from across the state, serving more than 1.5 million customers. Energy Northwest owns and operates a diverse mix of 100% carbon-free electricity generating resources including hydro, solar, battery storage and wind projects and the third-largest provider of electricity in Washington – the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power facility.

The agency continually explores new generation projects to meet its members’ needs.

How did you land your current role? How long have you been in it?

I came to the Tri-Cities in December 2010.

I was offered the chief nuclear officer position from previous Energy Northwest CEO Mark Reddemann, who I’d worked with in Minnesota at Xcel Energy. I was the CNO for almost seven years and then promoted to CEO in 2018 when Mark retired. Prior to coming to Energy Northwest, I spent most of my career at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant (Monticello, Minnesota) in operations, training and plant manager positions.

Why should the Tri-Cities care about the energy industry?

The Tri-City area is the birthplace of nuclear, so we have a rich history of nuclear reactors and then later harnessing that for energy purposes. The energy industry is an essential service and also a great source of jobs and revenue for our area.

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

Empathy. We should always be concerned for the well-being and success of our teammates.

What is the biggest challenge facing the energy industry today?

Decarbonization.

As we retire carbon-emitting coal plants, the challenge is ensuring we are prepared to fill the gap with available electricity resources. Renewables will play a big part – Energy Northwest is an advocate, as we own and operate wind, hydro, solar and battery facilities – but they will not be enough, so we have to ensure we are building new baseload resources for the future.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your industry?

Relative to the nuclear industry specifically, I believe we spent too many years with an out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality about our business. We failed to tout all the advantages that nuclear has to offer, specifically being a baseload, full-time, carbon-free resource that supports the environment.

We should have done a better job of advertising all our positives.

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Be prepared for, and accept, that at times you will be wrong. The last year with Covid-19 challenges has been a great reminder that the right answer will not always be obvious, so be ready to make changes as necessary.

The ability to recognize a mistake and make adjustments is important for keeping the trust of the team.

Who are your role models or mentors?

There’s been many, but I think you learn just as much from leaders who show us what not to do, as those who teach us what to do.

How do you keep your employees motivated?

Spending time focusing on the future and what we need to do to improve, and minimizing the time spent on the past. When things don’t go right, take the time to learn from those mistakes, but quickly move on. If we are constantly looking behind us, it prevents us from seeing what is in front of us. 

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today?

Pure luck. I was fortunate to get a job working construction at Monticello to make money for school. An in-house manager offered me a starting-level position, and I knew there were great careers in the utility industry. I finished my college education during night school. 

How do you measure success in your workplace?

I believe you can measure success by the attitude and energy of our teammates

In our industry, we do surveys to measure people’s job and company satisfaction, but I also believe you learn more by getting out and interfacing with people and getting their direct feedback.

What do you consider your leadership style to be?

I believe in setting high goals and a picture of what success looks like and empowering the team to come up with a plan to get us there. Leaders should set the vision and expectations. Leadership style needs to be dynamic, and there’s times, no matter what your role, when you need to be more directive and in the details.

This year, with navigating Covid-19, I’ve been in more of a directive style than usual. In part because it’s new territory for everyone, but also because it’s about protecting the health and safety of our employees while also providing an essential resource to the region. 

How do you balance work and family life?

I make family life a priority. I’ve been fortunate in my career that I was able to coach almost all my kids’ sports teams and make all the important events.

There were times that meant stopping back at the office late at night when the game or band concert was over, but even those times were rare. I was very lucky because my wife Kim was there to ensure everyone got where they needed to be when I had work challenges.

What do you like to do when you are not at work?

Spend time at the lake, be with family, hike, weightlift, attend sporting events and concerts. A number of those activities, of course, have been put on hold this year. 

What’s your best time management strategy?

Whenever possible, touch everything only once. Prioritize. If everything is important, then nothing is important. I focus on identifying the important items and moving everything else along quickly.

Best tip to relieve stress?

Exercise.

Favorite book?

It’s hard to name a favorite book, but over the last 10 years as Kim and I became empty nesters, I’ve spent a lot of time reading again. I’m currently reading “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson, which covers Winston Churchill’s first year in office. I’ve enjoyed both the historical aspects and leadership lessons.

Do you have a personal mantra, phrase or quote you like to use?

I have several favorite quotes. One that defines teamwork for me is from Bruce Springsteen, who said, “In the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.”

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